By Nicola Heath
Once upon a time, in a bright blue house near Mexico City, lived a small girl named Frida. She would grow up to be one of the most famous painters of the twentieth century…
In 2016, journalist Elena Favilli and playwright Francesca Cavallo, two Italians living in the United States, raised almost AU$1 million via Kickstarter to fund a new project they dreamed up in response to the endemic sexism they encountered in Silicon Valley.
The couple, who in 2012 founded a children’s media company called Timbuktu Labs, wanted to create a story book for children that offered an alternative to the traditional fairy tale narrative.
The result was Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of 100 tales of extraordinary women, from nineteenth century mathematician Ada Lovelace and Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek to Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini and Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. It’s a book where primatologists, pirates and politicians reign supreme over princesses.
The book’s dedication implores its readers to dream bigger, aim higher and fight harder. ‘It is important that girls understand the obstacles that lie in front of them. It is just as important that they know these obstacles are not insurmountable. That not only can they find a way to overcome them, but that they can remove those obstacles for those who will come after them, just like these great women did,’ reads the book’s preface.
Rebel Girls struck a chord among readers all over the globe; it has sold over one million copies and spawned a new genre, as dozens of similarly themed books followed. There’s Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (Ten Speed Press), Shout Out to The Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women (Random House Australia), the Rad Women series, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton, plus a second instalment of Rebel Girls. In 2018, ABC Audio Studios released Fierce Girls, a podcast about some of Australia’s most extraordinary women aimed at a young, presumably female, audience.
Natalie Kon-yu, a lecturer in literature studies at Victoria University, believes the popularity of Rebel Girls and books like it stems from the desire of parents to offer their kids, particularly their daughters, a fairer vision of the world: ‘The interest in historical female characters is a great way to do this – it shows girls they can achieve whatever they want.’
There is a stark gender imbalance in children’s literature. A 2011 survey of 6000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 found that males were central characters in 57 per cent of children’s books published each year, while just 31 per cent had female central characters. Male animals were central characters in 23 per cent of books per year, while female animals starred in just 7.5 per cent.
Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of female characters in kids’ literature has continued into the 21st century. An analysis of the 100 most popular children’s books in the UK in 2017, carried out by The Observer and Nielsen, found that lead characters were 50 per cent more likely to be male than female. Male characters were both more numerous and more likely to be accorded a speaking role in the story. And, again, non-human characters were more likely to be given a male pronoun.
Factors other than sex and gender must be considered when examining the lives of women.
Kon-yu would like to see more female protagonists in all kids’ books – not just nonfiction. ‘It’s important for boys and girls to see that female characters can exist on a spectrum,’ she says. ‘They can be goodies and baddies. It would allow both boys and girls to imagine themselves into these female roles. At the moment we demand this of our daughters, but not of our sons.’
Some have criticised the genre for offering a simplistic view of the intersection of gender and history and glorifying rebellion. “We need rebels at the edges of society in order for the mainstream to shift, but an individualistic approach to feminism elides the fact that most of its successes, from suffrage to civil rights to legalising abortion, are thanks to grass-roots collective action,” writes Anna Leszkiewicz in New Statesman.
Factors other than sex and gender must be considered when examining the lives of women, warns Kon-yu. ‘We need to be mindful that there are some women who have had to fight harder to make an impact in the world – we can’t just be concerned about gender, we have to consider race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and different levels of ability. Not all women are equally privileged.’
Pamela Freeman is the author of Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women Who Shaped History, a new children’s book that celebrates incredible Australian women. Freeman wanted around half the women included in the book to be easily recognisable to parents and teachers – people like Mary Reibey, the convict-turned-businesswoman who appears on Australia’s twenty dollar note; Edith Cowan, the first Australian woman to serve as a member of parliament; and opera singer Nellie Melba. She wanted the other half to be people no one had ever heard of – women ‘who had been erased from history’.
‘The fact that nobody knows about someone like Tilly Aston, who started Vision Australia, is just shocking,’ she says. ‘The fact that no one’s ever heard of Lores Bonney, who was arguably the best pilot Australia ever produced, is shocking. We all know Amelia Earhart, but none of us have heard of Lores Bonney, who was a much better flyer.’
If boys never heard these things, if all of the narratives that boys read are about boys, why would they then grow up with respect for women?
The final dozen are women from all walks of life who share the distinction of being leaders in their fields. ‘They were typically people who battled circumstances,’ Freeman says. ‘All of them overcame societal attitudes to do what they did, and some of them shaped society, like Edith Cowan and Mary Lee.’
Freeman hopes that girls are inspired by the remarkable women’s stories in her book, but, she says, it’s even more important that boys hear them. ‘Girls are naturally drawn to these stories, but boys are not, and they’re not encouraged to be. If boys never heard these things, if all of the narratives that boys read are about boys, why would they then grow up with respect for women?’
Kon-yu echoes Freeman’s point. “If girls only read about women, and boys read about men, then that reinforces the sexist status quo. Our culture is already so saturated with male narratives,’ she says. ‘Both boys and girls need to be exposed to more books about these historically significant women.’
And it’s just as important, she says, that other, non-human characters in kids’ books are gendered female. ‘It stops us thinking of the male experience as “normal” or “neutral”, and more importantly is a more accurate representation of the world we actually live in.’
The popularity of the emerging girl power genre recognises that the fight for gender equality is a long way from being won
While Freeman wants her book to be considered gender neutral, other titles in the genre are clearly aimed at either boys or girls. How likely is it that a boy will be presented with a copy of Rebel Girls for his birthday? Or a girl given Boys Who Dare to be Different? Books that champion the achievements of a specific gender may in fact inadvertently entrench the same limiting gender stereotypes they seek to overturn. On a promising note however, books like the forthcoming Stories for Kids Who Dare to be Different (Hachette Australia) are stepping in to bridge this gap by celebrating role models of all genders.
The popularity of the emerging girl power genre recognises that the fight for gender equality is a long way from being won, says Freeman. ‘There was a wave, women who grew up in the seventies, who were told we could do anything. But it’s clearly not true, and the backlash, the MRAs, the horrible stuff that is piled on women on the internet, all of this is evidence to women that the fight is a long way from being over.’
There is a need to ‘keep the fight going’, she says, ‘because it’s clear from everything we’ve seen in the last few years that the forces who would like to oppress women are very strong indeed and are fighting hard. And we have to fight hard back.’
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer who lives in Newcastle. Her work has been published at ABC Online, BBC, The Guardian, Daily Life, SBS Life, INTHEBLACK and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.